Sep 18, 2010

10 people killed in Afghanistan parliamentary election

At least 10 people were killed in Afghanistan during election to the parliament of the country on Saturday. Taliban unleashed country wide attacks to disrupt a poll that is testing the credibility of the government and security forces.

Voters appeared hesitant to go to polling stations after a series of rocket strikes across the country. In the worst attack, police said the Taliban killed one Afghan soldier and six pro-government militiamen in a raid on a security outpost next to a polling station in northern Baghlan province.

Glenn Cowan, co-founder of U.S.-based observers Democracy International, said turnout felt "about the same" as 2009, when about 4 million Afghans cast valid votes. "It was about the same pace this time," he said an hour before polls were due to close.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent watchdog, estimated last year's turnout at around 35 percent. There are 11.4 million eligible voters this time.

Significant security failures would be a major setback, with Washington watching closely before U.S. President Barack Obama conducts a war strategy review in December likely to examine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals.

A poll flawed by violence and fraud would also weigh on Obama when his administration faces mid-term Congressional elections in November amid sagging public support for the war, with violence at its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

The trend for the day was set early when a rocket landed near the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of NATO-led forces in Kabul about three hours before polls opened at 7 a.m. (10:30 p.m. EDT).

The Taliban said on their website they had conducted more than 100 attacks during the day.

Saturday's election followed a similar pattern to last year's flawed presidential poll, which the Taliban also threatened but failed to disrupt significantly despite scores of attacks.

Independent Election Commission (IEC) chairman Fazl Ahmad Manawi said 8 percent of the 5,816 polling centers had either not opened or not reported in, mainly because of security fears. The IEC had already decided not to open another 1,019 sites after the Taliban vowed to disrupt voting.

The attacks, and the number of polling stations that remained closed, raised fears about low voter turnout that could affect the outcome and credibility of the vote.

Rocket strikes in northern Takhar province and eastern Kunar killed three and wounded nine, officials said. Two Afghan election observers were wounded by an explosion inside a polling center in eastern Khost province, police said.

Kunar authorities called in a NATO air strike that killed nine Taliban fighters who attacked a poll site, Kunar police chief Khalilullah Ziayee said.

Many voters stayed home after the Taliban threatened to cut off the ink-stained fingers of those who cast ballots.

"I don't want to go and vote because of the Taliban's intimidation. I don't want to risk my life, just for a candidate," said one resident in Logar, south of Kabul, where four polling stations were closed after Taliban assaults.

"This is for Afghanistan's future," said student Sohail Bayat after casting his vote in Kabul. "People don't want the Taliban back, so every Afghan needs to go out and vote."

Corruption and fraud are also serious concerns after a deeply flawed presidential ballot last year when a third of Karzai's votes were thrown out as fake. Even though he is not standing, Saturday's vote is seen as a test of Karzai's credibility.

Washington believes graft weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when troops will leave. Obama has pledged to start drawing down U.S. forces from July 2011.

Irregularities reported before and during the vote included fake voter registration cards, people washing ink off their fingers and attempts to bribe or intimidate voters.

It will not be clear for several weeks who among the almost 2,500 candidates have won the 249 seats in the wolesi jirga, or lower house of parliament. Early results will not be known until at least October 8, with final results not due before October 30.

Election observers expect thousands of complaints from losing candidates, which could delay the process further.

Almost 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police provided security for the poll, backed up by some 150,000 foreign troops, but that was not enough to convince some disillusioned Afghans.

"If I saw an honest man, I'd vote for him," said Faqir Jan, an unemployed Kabul man.

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